McMann was a silver medalist in the 2004 Summer Olympics. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Murmurings of McMann’s wrestling prowess reverberated before she had ever stepped foot in a cage, making it difficult to find opponents. McMann even claims to have tried to line up a match against Rousey for her professional debut at a catchweight of 140 pounds. McMann said her manager, Monte Cox, told her the Rousey camp turned down the fight.
“I was having a really hard time finding someone to do my pro debut because even if they would accept, someone like Jan Finney has such a large record that the commission wouldn’t allow it because I was 0-0,” McMann said. “I was struggling for nine months to find my first pro fight and they offered me to fight on Shark Fights in Texas, and they were going to pay ridiculously good money. I talked to Monte and he said, ‘If you feel comfortable with the fight, I think it’s a great thing. It puts you up against tough competition right away and you’ll get right into everything with MMA.’ So I accepted, and they [got] back to negotiations.
“What Monte tells me is that they didn’t accept the fight,” she added. “At the time, I just assumed it was because making 140 would be too hard, because I knew she competed in judo at 156 and she was now competing at 145, but I didn’t know if five pounds more was something that she couldn’t do.”
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER
McMann last fought at UFC 159 in April, when she stopped Sheila Gaff on first-round punches. Observers have openly wondered whether or not the layoff will be an issue when she challenges for the title.
“I don’t believe in ring rust,” McMann said.
Goodale shares the sentiment.
“The only way I look at [ring rust] personally is that it makes her hungrier to compete,” he said.
McMann was quick to point out that she has competed tens of thousands of times over the past 19 years, with days often comprised of four to six competitions.
“Here’s the difference: A lot of people will have a training camp getting ready for a fight. They’ll talk about where they’re flying for a training camp and stuff like that,” Goodale said. “Sara has a ‘training camp,’ but she never stops training, regardless if it’s the week after a fight or whatever. She knows what days she’s going to practices [and] what day she’s going to have as her recovery day. She never stops training, so her base level of conditioning is always there.”
McMann sees advantages in embracing such a grind.
“I could change my schedule and take time off in between, but I think that as a wrestler we’re almost borderline obsessive about getting better, and you only make the gains if you dedicate every day towards it,” she said. “That’s what makes you the best, so I give myself a little time off afterwards just to let my mind relax and my body, but it’s easier for me to just get right back into the groove of things.”
McMann also experimented with training lighter at certain times but found she could not do so effectively.
“I will probably end up having to retire earlier from fighting because I want to train the way I think I should train, and if I can’t do that, then I’ll just be done,” she said. “I really believe that if I can’t do it the way it deserves to be done, then I can say I had my time and now it’s time to pass it on to somebody else who can put in that time and dedication.”
McMann regularly trains twice a day, with a focus on technical detail and an emphasis on the importance of preparing fully, not just for those currently populating MMA but also for the next wave of well-rounded fighters entering the sport.
“No matter who is put in front of you, you are going to have the tools to beat them,” McMann said, “and not just because you trained for two months for them; because really, if someone is very good at what they do, you can’t just train for them for two months.”
Her mindset was born from years of competing in wrestling -- a sport known for separating the strong from the weak.
“The way we did it in wrestling, basically at the end of world championships, after it was done, regardless of how you did, whether you won or placed second or fifth or ninth or whatever or didn't even make the team, you were looking at the people who you had to beat to get the gold that you wanted, and you were training for them the entire year,” McMann said. “We were having people in practice mimicking China, Japan, Russia, Sweden, all these girls, because you can’t just make the world team and then start training for these girls. That muscle memory has to be set in stone long before you ever know that you’re going to be competing against them, and that’s the way it should be done.”
McMann’s dedication to the sport has become evident to everyone around her, especially her family. Goodale recalls asking their 4-year-old daughter, Bella, what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“She said she wanted to be a practicer, like Mommy,” he said. “She asks where Mommy’s going every night, and I say, ‘She’s going to practice,’ so the question comes up, ‘Why does she go to practice?’ and Sara’ll say, ‘Because I have to get better.’ Well, after a couple of months, Bella’s like, ‘Well, aren’t you better yet?’”
McMann laughs at the memory.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I really should be,’” she said.
McMann’s commitment to her craft has rubbed off on Bella, who wants to practice in the wrestling room in order to avoid being defeated by a bigger friend.
“She’s ultra-competitive,” McMann said. “I think she gets it from Trent’s side. I’m only selectively competitive. My child is competitive at everything.”
McMann, who turns 34 in September, believes her time in MMA has come.
“At some point, my body’s not going to be able to do the things that are necessary to be the best and stay ahead of the curve, and I’m just going to say, ‘Oh, I’ve reached the end of my athletic abilities,” she said. “I’m not going to stretch it out by training lighter -- or less than how I should -- because I think all that would do is make me lose sooner.”